2009-10 Budget Analysis Series: Judicial and Criminal Justice

Creating Greater Efficiencies In Court Operations

Below, we present two proposals that would result in greater efficiencies in the operations of trial courts, as well as help to address the state’s massive General Fund shortfall. Specifically, we recommend that the Legislature consider (1) implementing electronic court reporting and (2) utilizing competitive bidding for court security.

Implement Electronic Court Reporting

Under current law, trial courts use certified shorthand reporters to create and transcribe the official record of most court proceedings. The prepared transcripts are effectively “owned” by the court reporters and must be purchased by the court. However, as we discussed in our Analysis of the 2008–09 Budget Bill (please see page D–42), electronic court reporting systems involving audio and/or video devices could be used instead of shorthand reporters to record the statements and testimony delivered in the courtroom. The actual recordings created during the proceeding could be used in a manner similar to a transcript, and the sales of these recordings could generate additional revenue for the court.

Currently, many state and federal courts—including the U.S. Supreme Court, the California Courts of Appeal, and the California Supreme Court—use electronic methods for recording court proceedings. Moreover, electronic court reporting was demonstrated to be cost–effective in a multiyear pilot study carried out in California courts between 1991 and 1994. The study found significant savings of $28,000 per courtroom per year in using audio reporting, and $42,000 per courtroom per year using video, as compared to using a court reporter. In addition to saving a substantial amount of funding, a switch to electronic court reporting would also help address a persistent problem faced by the courts—the short supply of certified shorthand reporters.

In view of the above, we recommend the Legislature direct the trial courts to implement electronic court reporting in California courtrooms. In order to allow an appropriate transition to the use of this technology, we propose that 20 percent of the state’s courtrooms be switched to electronic reporting each year until the phase in is complete. After factoring in the estimated one–time costs for audio and video equipment and adjusting the results of the above study for inflation, we estimate that the state could save about $13 million in savings in 2009–10. Upon full implementation, the estimated savings could exceed $100 million on an annual basis.

Utilize Competitive Bidding For Court Security

Current law requires trial courts to contract with their local sheriff’s offices for court security. Courts thus have little opportunity to influence either the level of security provided or the salaries of security officers. Accordingly, county sheriffs have little incentive to contain costs of the security provided, and the courts have no recourse to ensure that they do. Total security costs have increased from about $263 million in 1999–00 to about $496 million in 2007–08, for an average annual increase of 8 percent. While most of these costs are funded each year from the General Fund, a small portion is funded with revenue collected from a $20 court security fee paid by individuals convicted of a criminal offense (including all non–parking traffic violations).

Governor Proposes Security Fee Increase and Cost Standards. According to the Judicial Council, trial courts currently have a funding shortfall of about $27 million relative to their security costs. In order to address this shortfall, the administration proposes to increase the court security fee from $20 to $27 in order to raise an additional $27 million annually for these purposes. (Since the security fee was established in 2003, it has not been adjusted to account for increases in court security costs.)

In addition, the administration proposes statutory changes requiring the Judicial Council to establish statewide standards for security costs and services by July 1, 2010. The intent is for the Judicial Council to adopt standards that would in effect limit court security expenditures. For example, the proposed language specifies that county sheriff’s offices would be reimbursed based on average staffing costs as opposed to actual costs, thereby ending the existing incentive for sheriffs to use high–cost deputies for court security assignments.

LAO Alternative. The administration’s proposals to address court security costs have merit. The proposed statutory changes would help the courts gain greater control of rapidly escalating security costs, and the additional revenues from the proposed court security fee increase would help to offset costs that might otherwise be borne by the General Fund for these functions. However, in considering the steadily growing cost of court security, the Legislature could also consider an alternative to the establishment of court security cost standards that we believe would result in substantially greater state savings in the long run.

Specifically, instead of adopting new court cost standards, the Legislature could direct the courts to contract on a competitive basis with both public and private security providers and, thus, achieve greater efficiencies and General Fund savings. As we discussed in our Analysis of the 2008–09 Budget Bill (please see page D–45), establishing a competitive bidding process would provide a strong incentive for whichever public agency or private firm that won the bid to provide security in the most cost–effective manner possible. Courts would be able to select among the proposals offered to them by different security providers, thus allowing them to select the level of security that best meets their needs. Depending upon when and how this change was implemented, we estimate that the state could save about $20 million in 2009–10 and in excess of $100 million annually within a few years.

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